The Northwest Coast in World Diplomacy, 1790-1846


When Great Britain and Spain clashed over the possession of Nootka Sound in 1790, the Great Northwest hardly seemed worth the quarrel. For a half-century Europeans in numbers had sailed that coast in search of adventure, empire, sea otter skins, and the fabled Northwest Passage. They found adventure and fur; they discovered no passage and built no empires. For hundreds of miles to the north of San Francisco Bay they encountered a rugged coast, with rocky beaches, impermeable sand dunes, and forested headlands terminating frequently in towering cliffs that jutted precipitously from the sea. So devoid was the region of inviting coves and harbors that as late as 1790 explorers had not yet charted large portions of the shoreline between Spanish California and the Columbia River. North of the Columbia and along the shores of Juan de Fuca Strait early travelers found the coastal regions more attractive. What made these landscapes more pleasing to the eye was their gradual ascent from the generally low-lying, wooded shoreline to the crest of the coastal ranges. North of the Fraser River, wrote Captain James Cook in 1778, the coastal areas "had a very different appearance to what we had before seen." There, he noted, the mountains ran directly into the sea, creating deep inlets rather than gentle valleys along the shore. Early voyagers found the upper coasts of Vancouver Island equally forbidding.' Despite its grandeur, the Northwest coast in 1790 remained largely untouched. Mariners had scarcely entered, much less explored, its two most promising waterways, the Columbia River and Puget Sound. Even as an unspoiled wilderness the region seemed to belong to the past.

If eighteenth-century maritime activity in the Northwest had achieved little, it managed to give the region a momentary importance.' Spain claimed the Northwest under the Papal Bull of 1493 and the Spanish-Portuguese Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494; together these documents divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Before the mid-eighteenth century Spanish explorations north of Cape Mendocino had been halting and inconclusive; they had hardly solidified, much less extended, the Spanish Empire in North America. Spanish power in the Pacific could not hold its own against the pirates and privateers that preyed on Spanish shipping. Indeed, the Spanish hegemony over the west coast of North America was illusory and would endure only as long as that country faced no direct challenge from its European rivals. That challenge became inescapable when Vitus Bering, a Dane in the tsar's service, explored Russia's Asian coastline and, in 1728, discovered the strait that bears his name. Bering later organized an expedition which, in 1741, reached Chatham Sound south of Sitka in the vicinity of 55 north latitude. The expedition discovered portions of the Aleutian chain and took a bountiful harvest in sea otter skins. Russians now invaded the western Aleutians in search of pelts; they did not return to the coast of North America until the end of the century. Once established, the sea otter trade dominated the commerce of the North Pacific. Always, however, the Europeans relied on the natives who possessed the endurance, skill, weapons, and vessels required to pursue the prey.

Spain responded to suspected European encroachments by dispatching a series of expeditions to the northern Pacific to take formal possession of the coastal regions. On his return trip from the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1774, Juan Jose Perez Hernandez passed Vancouver Island and became the first European to sight Nootka Sound. When Captain James Cook, the noted English mariner, entered the Sound four years later, he purchased spoons taken from the Spaniards. Knowing that Spain claimed the Northwest coast, Cook did not take possession. After its discovery, Nootka Sound, with its large native population and its abundance of fur-bearing animals, became a center of European activity in the Northwest. Detecting the possibilities in the fur trade, British and American merchants invaded the region in large numbers. Soon such Yankees as John Kendrick and Robert Gray reached Nootka to begin their fur-trading activities. John Meares, the British sea captain, visited Nootka in 1788. To strengthen British claims, he sought and received permission from the local chief to build a house. After conducting his business, Meares dismantled the building and loaded the lumber onto one of his ships.' Conscious of the British and American presence at Nootka, and troubled by continuing reports of Russian movements down the coast, Spain between 1788 and 1790 dispatched further expeditions to the North Pacific to observe the Russians and take possession of additional locations along the distant shores.'

During 1789 the Spanish government decided to occupy Nootka and assert its special claims to the Northwest coast. To carry out this mission Spanish officials in Mexico selected Don Esteban Jose Martinez, an experienced mariner who had previously visited the North Pacific. Spain would now establish a permanent settlement at Nootka and remove the Russian, British, and American menaces to Spanish authority. At Nootka Martinez, finding no trace of British settlement, proclaimed the region Spanish. Kendrick and Gray had no desire to quarrel about titles; Gray believed that Spain had a better right to the coast than any other nations

Nor did British seamen aboard the Ifigenia at Nootka challenge Spain's claims. Nevertheless, Martinez distrusted the British. He soon discovered that the Ifigenia, although sailing under Portuguese registry, was actually a British vessel with instructions to resist seizure by a Russian or Spanish ship-clearly a rejection of Spanish sovereignty. Martinez seized the Ifgenia, held the crew on a Spanish warship, and finally sent the vessel with its officers and crew to Macao. Soon other English vessels arrived. After asserting Spanish claims to Nootka, Martinez sent them on their way. Then, in June 1789, the British seaman, Captain James Colnett, arrived at Nootka. When Martinez informed him that he commanded the garrison at Nootka in the name of the Spanish king, Colnett retorted that the Northwest coast belonged to Britain because of Captain Cook's discoveries. Suspecting a British plot to take control of Nootka, Martinez arrested Colnett, seized his ships, and sent him and his crew to San Blas.6 Spanish officials wanted no trouble with the British; they ordered Martinez back to Mexico.

Accounts of the clash at Nootka drifted into London, embellished and distorted by the state of anti-Spanish sentiment in Britain. The Nootka controversy at last presented Britain an opportunity to demolish Spain's New World claims under the Papal Bull of 1493 by establishing the principle that Spain had no rights to territory that it did not colonize. British diplomacy, if successful, would break Madrid's economic and political monopoly in Spanish America. To coerce Spain, weak internally and isolated from its traditional ally, France, the British government charged that the Spanish seizures at Nootka in time of peace were an insult to Britain and an offense against the law of nations. Britain acknowledged no Spanish claims to sovereignty along the Pacific coast.'

As the crisis mounted, John Rutledge, Jr., described to Thomas Jefferson in Paris the burgeoning war spirit in the House of Commons:

As soon as the house rose, I went amongst the members I was acquainted with, afterwards dined in company with others, and in my life I do not remember to have been amongst such insolent bullies. They were all for war, talked much of Old England and the british Lion, laughed at the Idea of drubbing the Dons', began to calculate the millions of dollars they would be obliged to pay for having insulted thefirst power on Earth, and seemed uneasy lest the Spaniards should be alarmed at the British strength, ask pardon for what they have done and come immediately to terms.8

Against British power and bellicosity Spanish claims based on the prior discovery and occupation of Nootka had no chance. In the Nootka negotiations British and Spanish officials found no bases of agreement in their disparate claims, but the British had the naval power to force a Spanish capitulation. In the Nootka Convention of October 28, 1790, Spain awarded the British exclusive dominion over Nootka Sound. It agreed to reparations for the seizure of the British vessels and recognized the British right to settle and conduct commerce in America wherever Spanish claims lacked the support of actual occupation.9

To conduct its delicate negotiations at Nootka, which were required to fulfill the terms of the Nootka Convention, Spanish officials in Mexico City chose the able Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. By agreeing to abandon Nootka, they hoped to secure a fixed boundary between British and Spanish claims in the Northwest. They ordered Quadra to occupy a suitable harbor on Fuca Strait to protect Spanish claims to the coast between Juan de Fuca Strait and San Francisco Bay. By establishing good relations with the natives, Spanish leaders hoped to capture control of the remaining trade in sea otter skins. Quadra reached Nootka in April 1792, four months before the arrival of the British commissioner.'

The British admiralty commissioned George Vancouver to survey the Northwest coast north of 30 and then proceed to Nootka Sound to meet Quadra and there accept the Spanish concessions defined in the Nootka Convention. Vancouver, in command of the Discovery and accompanied by the tender Chatham, passed Cape Mendocino on the California coast on April 17, 1792, after a long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and through the southern Pacific." On April 27 Vancouver recognized Cape Disappointment, but accepted without question Meares's conclusion that no river existed in the vicinity. Soon thereafter, Vancouver approached Robert Gray's Columbia, sending Peter Puget and his naturalist Archibald Menzies aboard. Gray had left Nootka that spring, sailed southward almost to the northern boundary of California, then turned northward again. Vancouver assured Gray that his expedition was concerned with exploration, not furs. As Vancouver sailed northward toward Fuca Strait, Gray followed, entering the inlet since known as Grays Harbor. After trading with the Indians, Gray moved southward with the intention of entering a large river below Cape Disappointment that he had noted in April. On May 12, Gray crossed the bar and sailed into the river that he named the Columbia. '2 Meanwhile Vancouver emerged from Fuca Strait to begin his six-week task of charting the inland waters of Puget Sound. From Puget Sound Vancouver sailed through the Strait of Georgia and reentered the Pacific at Queen Charlotte Strait, demonstrating again that Vancouver was an island. 13

When Vancouver reached Nootka, he found Quadra in an uncompromising mood, determined to contest British rights along the Northwest coast. Quadra argued that Meares had established no British claims with his small but which did not exist when Martinez arrived in 1789. Quadra defended Martinez's behavior toward Colnett whose vessel, he said, had a Portuguese rather than an English registry. Colnett, he added, had received good treatment at San Blas, and his officers and crew, while held, received the wages of the Spanish navy. Thus Spain had nothing to deliver up, no claims to satisfy. Nevertheless, to avoid trouble the Spaniards withdrew to their new settlement at the mouth of Fuca Strait. Vancouver informed Quadra that he came to carry out the Nootka Convention, not to enter into a retrospective discussion of the relative merits of Spanish and British rights along the Northwest coast. He insisted, however, that the Nootka Convention prohibited all Spanish settlements on the coast which did not exist in April 1789. This provision eliminated all Spanish claims to the Pacific coast north of San Francisco Bay. When Quadra rejected his claims, Vancouver terminated the negotiations. Vancouver and Quadra, parting as friends, agreed to return their differences to their respective courts. 14

At the end, both countries retreated from their claims to the Northwest coast, permitting sovereignty to return to the natives. What mattered after 1790 was due less to the claims based on discovery or elaborate acts of possession than to the decline of the sea otter trade. With the exception of the Russians at Sitka, few Europeans resided in the Great Northwest in 1800. The Aleut hunters scarcely merited the designation of settlers. Spain had relinquished Nootka as well as its tiny settlement of Fuca Strait. No British or American traders had taken up permanent residence; they had invested their earlier profits elsewhere. Despite its attractiveness the Northwest coast had convinced few that possession offered rewards commensurate with the cost of maintaining it. The Northwest trade, although linked to the Orient, offered no assurance of future profits. The Northwest coast was simply too isolated and unpromising to create a base of enterprise capable of attracting immigrants and capital." Vancouver had recognized the quality of Puget Sound and its many inlets. They were, he wrote, "capable of affording great advantages to commercial pursuits, by opening communications with parts of the interior country commodiously and delightfully situated." 16 But Vancouver's writings did not visualize Puget Sound as the seat of a burgeoning Pacific commerce based on the productivity of a continent.


Even before Robert Gray discovered the Columbia, Thomas Jefferson had detected the true importance of the Pacific Northwest for the United States. For him, it was not a distant center of the fur trade but a gateway for American commerce in the Pacific. While still in Paris, he dispatched John Ledyard, a Connecticut adventurer, to find a continental route by entering Nootka Sound from Kamtchatka and eventually following the Missouri River to St. Louis." Ledyard had reached the Yakutsk area of Siberia when Empress Catherine of Russia refused him permission to proceed further. In 1793 Jefferson, as a member of the American Philosophical Society, agreed to support the western explorations of the noted French botanist, Andre Michaux. He asked Michaux to "seek for and pursue that route which shall form the shortest and most convenient communication between the high parts of the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean."18 Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis, dated June 20, 1803, again revealed his commercial interest in the distant Northwest. "The object of your mission," the president charged the leader of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, "is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it, as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce."19 Britain as well approached the task of empire-building in the Northwest by land rather than sea. In 1793 Alexander Mackenzie crossed the continent, reaching the Pacific on July 20 north of Vancouver Island. For Mackenzie, who published an account of his travels in 1801, Britain's future in the Northwest lay in the development of transcontinental trade.2

Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana bridged the gap between the Mississippi and the Pacific shores, but it left United States claims to frontage on the distant ocean uncertain and inconclusive. In the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, which defined the southern boundary of Louisiana, Spain gave up to the United States all its claim to the territory west of the Rockies and north of the 42nd parallel. During the previous year the United States and Britain had negotiated the northern boundary of Louisiana along the 49th parallel westward from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. The British government had first given significance to the 49th parallel in 1719 when its representative on the Anglo-French commission, appointed to carry out the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, suggested that line as the southern limit of the Hudson's Bay Company activity. Beyond the Rockies, however, the United States faced the expanding British Empire, reaching across Canada to the Pacific coast, with the Hudson's Bay Company in the vanguard. In the Convention of 1818 the two contestants agreed to leave the region west of the mountains equally and freely accessible for a period of ten years to the vessels and citizens of either nation without prejudice to their respective claims.2'

What quickly brought the Northwest coast into international diplomacy again was the Russian tsar's ukase of September 1821, which demanded exclusive rights for his subjects to trade, fish, or navigate within 100 Italian miles of the Northwest coast, from Bering Strait to the 51st parallel north latitude. In June 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams introduced the cabinet to the question of Russian claims. These, he argued, the United States should contest, especially since Russia had no settlements in the disputed region. On July 17 Adams informed the Russian minister in Washington that the United States would accept no Russian territorial establishment on the continent. Adams wrote several days later, "There can, perhaps, be no better time for saying, frankly and explicitly, to the Russian Government that the future peace of the world, and the interest of Russia herself, can not be promoted by Russian settlement upon any part of the American continents."22 Adams admitted to British Minister Stratford Canning that the United States had no territorial claims as far north as 51 ; he assumed, however, that British interests would be sufficient to counter Russian demands. Adams suggested a Russian boundary at 55, reserving for Britain 6 of frontage on the Pacific between the 49th and the 55th parallels. British Foreign Minister George Canning's rejection of Adams's project for a tripartite partition of the coast did not prevent a settlement with Russia. To keep all of Prince of Wales Island under Russian control, the Russians proposed the boundary of 5440'. In the convention of April 1824 London and Washington accepted the Russian offer; Russia, in exchange, gave up all pretensions to a mare clausum in the north Pacific.23

The settlements of 1819 and 1824 eliminated Spanish and Russian claims from the Northwest, leaving the long coast between 42 and 54*40'to the two remaining contestants, Great Britain and the United States. American diplomats put forth claims to the 49th parallel, arguing that prior discovery and the fur trade gave the United States rights not only to the Columbia Valley but also to the regions extending at least to the traditional line of 49. Even Vancouver, they noted, readily admitted that Gray had discovered the Columbia. Its course, without question, was first explored by Lewis and Clark. The waters of Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound, Americans conceded, had been explored over time by Spanish, British, and American navigators, but even here American officials claimed the Spanish rights and the prerogatives accruing from the fur trade. The Pacific Fur Company post of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia merely added the right of prior settlement. Lastly, American negotiators insisted that the principle of contiguity favored the extension of the 49th parallel to the Pacific Ocean. But what made that line the sine qua non of any American settlement was more than principle; it was the knowledge that such a settlement would serve the American interest in ocean frontage admirably; the magnificent Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound were south of that line.24

British diplomats were far less sanguine. They hoped that by neutralizing the American claims of prior discovery, exploration, and settlement they could reduce the contest to a matter of actual occupation. They emphasized the early British explorations of the Columbia and the Juan de Fuca Strait. They insisted, further, that the Spaniards had terminated their claims to the Oregon country in the Nootka settlement of 1790; for the United States, therefore, the Spanish rights were no rights at all. It was the British thesis that pretensions based on discovery and exploration were at best confused and controversial, and that Oregon should be divided on the basis of possession.zs This was, for Britain, a strong position because the entire region north of the Columbia had been continuously in the possession of the Hudson's Bay Company. Fort Vancouver, located on the north bank of the Columbia opposite the mouth of the Willamette, was the chief Hudson's Bay post in Oregon. For Hudson's Bay officials possession of the Columbia was essential for the maintenance of the British fur trade in Oregon; the demands of the fur trade determined the objectives of British diplomacy. While adamant on the Columbia line, the British gave up all pretensions south of the river even though the Hudson's Bay Company maintained scattered posts in that region. Thus United States claims to Oregon were unchallenged in that broad strip of land between the Columbia and the 42nd parallel. It was the struggle for frontage on the Pacific that rendered the British proposal of the Columbia unacceptable.

In the Oregon negotiations of 1826, conducted by Albert Gallatin in London, President John Quincy Adams refused to retreat from the 49th parallel despite Gallatin's willingness to concede to the British the drainage basin of Fuca Strait. British Foreign Minister George Canning admitted his own commercial motivation during the 1826 negotiations when he wrote that he would not care to have his "name affixed to an instrument by which England would have foregone the advantage of our immense direct intercourse between China and what may be, if we resolve not to yield them up, her boundless establishments on the N.W. Coast of America."26 Keenly aware of the underlying competition for ports between the two contestants in Oregon, Canning attempted unsuccessfully to quiet the American demand for 49 by offering a frontage of isolated territory on the strait. Adams preferred to prolong the diplomatic stalemate rather than to allow Britain to endanger permanently American maritime interests in the Pacific. In his effort to contain Britain, Adams established the fundamental American diplomatic position on Oregon. In lieu of a boundary settlement, the negotiators in London extended the principle of joint occupancy indefinitely, each nation obtaining the privilege of terminating the arrangement upon a twelve-month notice of such intention.27 As late as the 1840s Oregon was still held in this state of equilibrium by two empires struggling for mastery of the Northwest coast.


Oregon's still unsettled boundary troubled Daniel Webster and Lord Ashburton as they confronted the full spectrum of United States-British disputes in their Washington negotiations of 1842. London again offered a settlement at the Columbia River. When Webster predictably rejected the proposal, the two negotiators simply eliminated the Oregon question from their subsequent deliberations .28 For American observers the Columbia had long been of questionable value as an ocean port. The writings of travelers made axiomatic the dangers of the sand bar between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams, created by the vast quantities of sand carried down the Columbia and hurled back by the surf. "Mere description," wrote Charles Wilkes, commander of the American exploring expedition to the Pacific, "can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia: all who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor." In sharp contrast was Wilkes's description of Fuca Strait and the sea arms to the east of it. "Nothing," he wrote, "can exceed the beauty of these waters, and their safety: not a shoal exists within the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound, or Hood's Canal, that can in any way interrupt their navigation by a seventy-four gun ship. I venture nothing in saying, there is no country in the world that possesses waters equal to these."29 Such reports-and there were others-merely reaffirmed the American commitment to the 49th parallel.

In London, Foreign Minister Lord Aberdeen continued to insist on the Columbia line. Troubled, however, by the failure of the negotiators in Washington to reach a settlement, he suggested to Edward Everett, the United States minister in London, that Britain might support Webster's tripartite scheme whereby the United States, accepting the Columbia line, would extend its ocean frontage southward to San Francisco Bay through a new territorial arrangement with Mexico. Whatever the possibilities of such a division of the coastline, Everett and Aberdeen agreed that the two countries should seek an early settlement of the Oregon boundary.30 In Washington, Webster doubted that the United States could gain San Francisco through a three-nation negotiation. At the same time he discounted the value of the Columbia as an ocean port:

It affords [he reminded Everett privately on November 28, 1842] very small accommodations to commerce, in comparison with its size, or volume of water. For nine months in the year the navigation of its mouth is regarded as impracticable, and for the rest quite uncertain and inconvenient. If we should consent to be limited by the river on the north, we shall not have one tolerable harbor on the whole coast. The straits of St. Juan de Fuca, and the inland waters with which they communicate, undoubtedly contain all the good harbors between the Russian settlements and California.

What, Webster wondered, were the British interests in Oregon?

England [he speculated] wants a good harbor in the [Puget] Sound, connected with the ocean through these straits; she may want also the privilege of transporting furs and other commodities down the [Columbia] river; and I suppose it is an object with her to retain the settlement at Vancouver and the other small settlements further north, under her jurisdiction and protection. Does she want any more? I doubt whether she can contemplate any considerable colonization in the regions."

Webster searched for a compromise. He rejected the notion of disconnected territory on the Fuca Strait. As an alternative to the British proposal of 1826, Webster suggested a settlement that would begin at "the entrance of the straits of St. Juan de Fuca, follow up these Straits, give us a harbor at the southwest corner of these inland waters, and then continue south, striking the [Columbia] river below Vancouver, and then following the river to its intersection with the 49th degree of latitude North." Aberdeen's response to Webster's private proposal convinced Everett that London would eventually grant the United States access to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Everett reported as late as February 1843 that Aberdeen anticipated no difficulty in negotiating a settlement based on Webster's compromise line.32 How the secretary intended to carry such a boundary arrangement through the Senate was not clear.

President John Tyler inadvertently aroused congressional interest in the Oregon question when, in his annual message of December 1842 he placed responsibility for his failure to achieve a satisfactory Oregon settlement that year on the British.33 In late December Senator Lewis F. Linn of Missouri introduced a bill to encourage the American occupation of Oregon, and thereby strengthen American claims to the contested region, by establishing civil government south of the Columbia. British Minister Henry Fox immediately warned London that such action would destabilize the balance of forces in Oregon. Webster feared no less that the demands of Western politicians and editors for an immediate Oregon settlement would complicate the process of defining a boundary that would assure American access to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Webster wrote to Everett in late January 1843: "We feel the importance of settling this question if we can, but we fear embarrassments and difficulties, not, perhaps so much from the subject itself, as from the purposes of men, and of parties, connected with it."3a The Linn Bill threatened all progress toward a diplomatic settlement. Aberdeen assured Webster that if the Linn measure, as a violation of the joint occupancy convention, passed the Congress, Britain would take whatever steps seemed essential for the maintenance of its claims. The Senate adopted the Linn Bill by a vote of 24 to 22, but the House Committee on Foreign Affairs rejected the proposal."

As if to eliminate every possibility of an early Oregon settlement, a convention of delegates from six western states gathered in Cincinnati in early July 1843, and there proclaimed that the rights of the United States to all the territory between 49 and 5440' was clear and unquestionable. 16 The convention based its claim on the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that the American continents "were not thenceforth to be considered subjects for future colonization by any foreign power." In London this western provincialism created a mood of urgency. Aberdeen pressed Everett for a new boundary proposal, preferring to conduct the negotiations in London rather than in Washington. In August, however, Aberdeen instructed Fox to assure the Tyler administration that he was empowered to negotiate should it prefer to submit a proposition to him. 17

Finally, in October 1843, Tyler and his new secretary of state, Abel Upshur, drafted a new Oregon boundary proposal. Tyler dropped Webster's compromise of the previous November that would have granted Britain the Columbia line except for a strip of land extending northward along the coast to the southern shore of Fuca Strait. To achieve the necessary British retreat from the Columbia, Upshur instructed Everett to assert American claims to the Russian line. "Our commerce in the Pacific Ocean," added Upshur, "is already of great extent and value, requiring the presence of armed vessels to protect it; and there is no port belonging to us to which our vessels, whether of commerce or of war, can resort, south of the Straits of Fuca." Everett, having claimed the whole of Oregon, could offer the 49th parallel as a compromise, granting the British, in exchange, the right to navigate the Columbia River. In London, Everett assured Aberdeen that the traditional American offer of 49 comprised a reasonable and equitable settlement of the Oregon dispute. Aberdeen argued that Britain, in 1824 and again in 1826, had rejected that line. "There must," he said, "be concessions on both sides." Everett responded with the proposal that Britain retain all of Vancouver Island with its frontage on Fuca Strait.38

Tyler, in his message of December 1843, again complicated the Oregon question by reasserting the American claim to the whole of Oregon. Without revealing what boundary he sought, the president promised the nation that he would seek a quick and satisfactory settlement of the Oregon boundary. Meanwhile, he added, Congress might protect American emigrants to the Oregon country by establishing military posts along the route and by extending American laws to assure civil order for the pioneers after their arriva1.39 The British minister in Washington detected no presidential promise in the message that would eliminate an acceptable compromise. Thus encouraged, Aberdeen now returned to the British proposal of 1826-the Columbia with an enclave of territory at the mouth of Fuca Strait and free use of all ports in British territory south of 49, thereby, he noted, giving the United States access to good anchorages in the Pacific Northwest.4 This British proposal would have converted Puget Sound and the coast to the Columbia into a free trade zone. Whether this arrangement would have served the American commercial interest was doubtful; the United States could never have brought its full economic power to bear on ports that lay in British territory. Richard Pakenham, the new British minister, carried Aberdeen's new proposal with him to Washington in February 1844.

Pakenham had scarcely initiated his negotiations in Washington when an explosion aboard the American war vessel Princeton killed Secretary of State Upshur. In March Tyler offered the position to John C. Calhoun. During the debates on the Linn Bill in January 1843, Calhoun had advised a policy of "wise and masterly inactivity" in Oregon, convinced that legislation to foster American occupation was unnecessary and unduly destructive of American relations with Britain. Calhoun argued that "time is acting for us; and if we shall have the wisdom to trust its operation, it will assert and maintain our right with resistless force, without costing a cent of money or a drop of blood."" Calhoun's strategy recognized the role of the pioneers in strengthening the diplomacy of the United States on the Oregon issue; it did not suggest what the ultimate settlement should be. Calhoun's policy of "masterly inactivity" seemed to be succeeding as a thousand pioneers in the spring of 1843 prepared to leave for Oregon. When in August Calhoun finally reopened the Oregon negotiations, Pakenham presented a proposal based on Aberdeen's instructions of late December 1843; Calhoun rejected the offer outright.42 During subsequent weeks Calhoun and Pakenham set forth the traditional British and American claims to Oregon; these, Calhoun acknowledged, scarcely established any historic American rights to the 49, much less to 5440'. Pakenham argued that the final partition of Oregon should satisfy the interests and convenience of both countries; by giving the United States access to harbors, he wrote, the British offer had satisfied the interests of the United States.43

By September 1844 the two countries approached an acceptable compromise. When Calhoun again insisted on the 49th parallel, Pakenham reminded him that Britain required some concessions such as the tip of Vancouver Island and free navigations of the Columbia. In London, Aberdeen arrived at precisely the same compromise. On September 25, he revealed his private convictions in a letter to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Britain, he admitted, would not accept the traditional American proposal of the 49th parallel to the Pacific. That line would cut Britain off from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But [he continued] if the line of the 49th degree were extended only to the water's edge, and should leave us in possession of all of Vancouver's Island, with the northern side of the entrance to Puget's Sound; and if all the harbors within the Sound and the Columbia, inclusive, were made free to both countries; and further, if the river Columbia from the point at which it became navigable to its mouth, were also made free to both, this would be in reality a most advantageous settlement.44

In Washington, Calhoun rejected what was fundamentally the Everett compromise, convinced that the Senate would not approve it. In London, Peel agreed with Aberdeen on the acceptability of the settlement, but reminded the foreign minister that the British government's opposition was not prepared to depart from the traditional British offer of the Columbia line. To avoid risk to the ministry's political future, Aberdeen recommended a settlement by arbitration. "The Oregon question," he wrote, "is principally or best suited for arbitration. Its real importance is insignificant; but the press of both countries, and public clamor, have given it a fictitious interest which renders it difficult for either government to act with moderation, or with common sense." 45 Arbitration would free responsible officials in both London and Washington from the limits imposed by their domestic detractors. For Calhoun, unlike Aberdeen, the issue was not one of minor importance; predictably, in January 1845, he rejected arbitration.6


By 1845 British leaders had advanced the Oregon negotiations to the point of settlement. Unfortunately those Democrats campaigning for the whole of Oregon in the 1844 election seemed to eliminate the possibilities of a negotiated boundary settlement altogether. James K. Polk, the new Democratic president, had identified himself completely with his party's platform. Only by escaping his obligations to the platform and the Democrats who took the platform seriously could he accept a settlement even at 49. In his inaugural, Polk, in declaring the American title to Oregon "clear and unquestionable," appeared concerned more with the cohesiveness of his party than with a settlement of the Oregon question.47 Still Polk, as president, could scarcely abandon the country's diplomatic tradition that had offered Britain a boundary along the 49th parallel. What compelled his immediate return to the traditional offer was the violent reaction that his inaugural produced in both the United States and England.48 Yet it was clear even then that politics had forever destroyed Polk's freedom to negotiate an acceptable boundary in Oregon. To insist on 5440', recalled Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, meant war; to recede from it was to abandon the platform. Polk met the first danger in July 1845 by offering Britain the 49th parallel to the Pacific; Pakenham rejected the proposal without referring it to London.49

Polk, having made a half-hearted effort at negotiation, refused thereafter to reopen the discussions. His commitment to his fellow Democrats would not permit him to abandon the platform again. When late in October T. W. Ward, the Boston agent of Baring Brothers, called on the president to seek his views, Polk noted the result in his diary: "He learned nothing, and after apologizing for making the inquiry he retired." Secretary of State James Buchanan reminded the president repeatedly that the country would not support a war for any territory north of 49'. Polk, in response, assured Buchanan that his gravest danger lay in an attack on his administration for having yielded to the position of his predecessors by offering the 49th parallel. "I told him," Polk recorded, "that if that proposition had been accepted by the British Minister my course would have met with great opposition, and in my opinion would have gone far to overthrow the administration; that, had it been accepted, as we came in on Texas the probability was we would have gone out on Oregon."50 Polk's message to Congress in December 1845 again assured the Democratic party that he was thoroughly attuned to the declaration of the 1844 Baltimore Convention. He declared: "The extraordinary and wholly inadmissible demands of the British Government, and the rejection of the proposition made in deference alone to what had been done by my predecessors, and the implied obligation which their acts seemed to impose, afforded satisfactory evidence that no compromise which the United States ought to accept, can be effected." The American title, he repeated, was maintained "by irrefragable facts and arguments. "51 The president seemed to promise that he would not weaken again, but he carefully avoided any phraseology that would deny him the freedom to submit a compromise treaty to the Senate. He requested the necessary congressional authorization to give notice terminating joint occupancy in Oregon and he was prepared to exert pressure on Britain without assuming the diplomatic initiative.

Privately, Polk from the beginning favored a settlement at the 49th parallel. Indeed, his personal views toward Oregon differed little from those of Adams, Webster, and the commercially minded Whigs. Ports, he admitted, were all that mattered. He conceded in July 1845 that the United States could easily settle at 49 "since the entrance of the Straits of Fuca, Admiralty Inlet, and Puget's Sound, with their fine harbors and rich surrounding soil, are all south of this parallel." Polk accepted without question the verdict of travelers that the country to the north was unfit for agriculture and incapable of sustaining anything but the fur trade. With his advisors he doubted "whether the judgment of the civilized world would be in our favor in a war waged for a comparatively worthless territory north of 49, which his predecessors had over and over again offered to surrender to Great Britain, provided she would yield her pretensions to the country south of that latitude."5z Polk, thereafter, never lost sight of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In his December message he declared that the United States could never accept a settlement in Oregon that "would leave on the British side two-thirds of the whole Oregon territory, including the free navigation of the Columbia and all valuable harbors on the Pacific." Later that month Polk noted in his diary that he would submit to the Senate for its previous advice any British offer that would grant to the United States the Strait of Fuca and some free ports to the north.53

Again Polk's interest in Pacific ports was apparent in his vigorous resistance to arbitration during the early months of 1846. He would not, he wrote, jeopardize the American acquisition of harbors on Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound. Oregon, he asserted in his rejection, presented the avenue for commerce between Asia and the western coasts of North America. This vast region, moreover, had no safe and commodious harbors except near the 49th parallel. For commercial purposes, he informed Minister Louis McLane in London, "the United States might almost as well abandon the whole territory as consent to deprive ourselves of these harbors; because south of them, within its limits, no good harbor exists."54

Unable to lead the country toward the acceptance of the 49th parallel, Polk could only rely on those who favored compromise to deflate the influence of his political allies in the Democratic party. When Congress met in December 1845, there was little evidence that within six months the settlement of the disturbing Oregon question would be assured. Polk's message had followed his stated conviction that "the only way to treat John Bull is to look him straight in the eye." Enthusiasm for the whole of Oregon, enlivened by the president's message, rapidly translated United States claims in the distant Northwest into what Albert K. Weinberg once termed a "defiant anti-legalism."55 No longer would the United States base its claims on discovery and exploration. The fact that Oregon was nearer to the United States than to Britain seemed sufficient to establish the superiority of American claims. Added to that was the assumption that an Oregon possessed by the United States would be democratic and teeming with a vigorous agricultural and commercial population, whereas a British Oregon would be monarchical and consigned to the fur trade, Edward D. Baker of Illinois informed the House of Representatives that he had little regard for "musty records and the voyages of old sea captains, or the Spanish treaties," because the United States had a better title "under the law of nature and of nations." 56 The most uncompromising Democrats in Congress were representatives from the Midwest-Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana proposed a toast at a Philadelphia convocation: "Oregon -every foot or not an inch; 54 degrees and forty minutes or delenda est Britannia." It was not strange that a tenseness gripped the capital as members gathered for the opening of Congress. Few seemed willing to challenge the superior patriotism of the extremists. John C. Calhoun admitted later that when he arrived at Washington in December, it was dangerous even to whisper "forty-nine."57

Actually, this expanding outlook was doomed from the opening of Congress by the patent interests of American commercialism. Too many congressional eyes were narrowly trained on ports to permit the triumph of agrarian nationalism and the war that it might have produced. Samuel Gordon of New York phrased his district's cogent evaluation of Oregon in the House by stating, "It is the key to the Pacific. It will command the trade of the isles of the Pacific, of the East, and of China." Washington Hunt, also of New York, repeated this dominant theme, noting, "Its possession will ultimately secure to us an ascendancy in the trade of the Pacific, thereby making `the uttermost parts of the earth' tributary to our enterprise, and pouring into our lap `the wealth of Ormus and of Ind.' "Ss Salt spray had long conditioned New England's outlook. Early in January 1846, Robert Winthrop clearly defined the objectives of his constituents. "We need ports on the Pacific," he shouted. "As to land, we have millions of acres of better land still unoccupied on this side of the mountains."59

During the preceding year, William Sturgis, still an active member of Boston's commercial aristocracy, had popularized such particularistic notions in the Bay State. His three decades of intense maritime activity in the Pacific had channeled his attention to ports and not to land. In his famous lecture to the citizens of Boston in January 1845, Sturgis admitted that the Willamette Valley, the seat of American settlement in Oregon, was both attractive and productive, but he had never heard, he added, of any Oregon lands which were superior to millions of uncultivated acres east of the Rockies. Sturgis indicated, moreover, which ports in Oregon the United States would require to assure its future leadership in the Oriental trade. The Columbia, he warned, was always dangerous for large ships and almost inaccessible for a considerable portion of each year. Instead, this country's maritime greatness in the Pacific would derive from the possession of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its numerous branches which were "easy of access, safe, and navigable at all seasons and in any weather."6 This lucid analysis of American interests on the Northwest coast, complementing the writings of other travelers and merchants, determined fully the views of commercial America and its representatives in Congress toward the Oregon question.

Such assumptions, regarding Oregon and its future importance, compelled midwestern congressmen also to debate the Oregon question in commercial terms; Oregon held a special mercantile significance for their constituents as well. What disturbed these nationalists, however, was the fact that the constant reiteration of the commercial value of the Oregon coast bespoke compromise at the 49th parallel, for that boundary would give the United States access to Fuca Strait and Puget Sound .6l Responding to the challenge, some uncompromising Democrats argued that the coastal regions north of 49 were essential for America's future in the Pacific. John McClernand of Illinois warned members of the House against the fatal error of compromise. "Commercially," he declared, "by such a concession, we voluntarily decapitate ourselves upon the Pacific seaboard; we lose that portion of Oregon which bears the same relation to the Pacific, in furnishing a commercial marine upon that ocean, which New England now bears upon the Atlantic. . . ." Furthermore, McClernand predicted, "The American or British marine, which will whiten the Pacific, . . will be built, owned, and navigated by a similar people, who shall dwell north of the 49th parallel."62 Similarly, Senator Hannegan warned those who favored compromise, "Let England possess Nootka Sound, the finest harbor in the world, commanding as it does the Strait of Fuca, and consequently the access to Puget's Sound, and she has all of Oregon worth possessing in a commercial and maritime point of view." He turned his abuse on men dominated by narrow commercialism. "It is the opinion of six-sevenths of the American people," he said, "that Oregon is oursperhaps I should rather say five-sevenths, for I must leave out of the estimate the commercial and stockjobbing population of our great cities along the seaboard, a great portion of whom are English subjects, residing among us for the purpose of traffic.... "63


By January 1846 the movement for compromise in the United States had effectively challenged the hold of the extremists on American thought. That month the North American Review demanded a settlement of the Oregon question on some consideration other than that of shopworn titles that neither side intended to concede. "We have been arguing the question for thirty years," charged the writer, "and stand precisely where we did when the discussion commenced." The debate, he declared, sounded like a "solemn mummery" in which too many ambitious politicians were preventing the vast majority from regarding the issue with perfect indifference. The writer continued, "Not one in ten thousand ... would be immediately affected by the successful assertion of our claim to the whole of Oregon."64 Soon even the metropolitan expansionist press began to foster compromise. Throughout the commercial East, writers accused western Democrats of clinging to an unrealistic cause and employing it to play upon the nationalistic emotions of the American people, not to obtain Oregon, but to attain political power. Eastern merchants complained that threats of war were hampering United States commerce around the world, for no whaler or East India merchantman would venture freely onto the high seas with a war in the offing. "This will all do famously for the valley of the Mississippi, where they have all to gain by a war and nothing to lose," grumbled the New York merchant, Philip Hone. "But we on the seaboard must fight all, pay all, and suffer all."65 Even from the Old Northwest, where anti-British feeling was strongest, came demands for compromise.66

In Congress the movement for a settlement at the 49th parallel enjoyed the leadership of two powerful Democratic factions. Thomas Hart Benton and John A. Dix led the old Van Buren group in the Senate; John C. Calhoun spoke for the conservative southern bloc. Calhoun regarded himself as the Senate's chief spokesman for compromise; so the press regarded him also. The Washington correspondent of the New York Journal of Commerce defined his role precisely: "Mr. Calhoun, from the moment of his arrival here, had exerted himself to calm the agitated waters. He has counselled admirably, and is still engaged in promoting a good understanding between the British Minister and our Government. . . . To do this, he has used his efforts both with Whigs and Democrats, in both Houses, and has succeeded." 67 As early as February, Calhoun prepared a resolution to advise the president to reopen negotiations with England for a settlement at 49. Whig support assured the eventual triumph of Calhoun's compromise efforts. Webster wrote in January, "Most of the Whigs in the Senate incline to remain rather quiet, and to follow the lead of Mr. Calhoun. He is at the head of a party of six or seven, and as he professes still to be an administration man, it is best to leave the work in his hands, at least for the present." The New York Herald described well this strange political alignment: "The chivalry of the West goes hot and strong for 54-40, while the ardent South, and the calculating East, coalesce, for once, on this point, and quietly and temperately call for 49."68 By late February it had become obvious to the administration that a compromise at the 49th parallel would receive a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

Polk alone carried the responsibility for the nation's diplomacy. Those who favored a settlement with Britain necessarily looked to him for leadership. Politicians and the press assured the administration that the overwhelming majority of the American people would sustain its search for a compromise. "Six clear heads in Washington," argued one editor, "are much more likely to come to a correct conclusion of the Nation's welfare, than hundreds of popular meetings composed of tens of thousands of excited individuals." 69 Those who urged the president to assume the diplomatic initiative sensed correctly the peaceful intent of the administration. Yet Polk was unable to respond. The unequivocal language of his message and the pressures within his party prevented him from pursuing a settlement at the 49th parallel. Increasingly his position became untenable, for he found himself trapped between the ultimate necessity of accepting a settlement at 49 and the immediate necessity of supporting, at least publicly, the expansionists of his own party. Buchanan reminded the president that the 54-40 men were the true friends of the administration. John J. Crittenden, the Kentucky Whig, saw some discretion in Buchanan's caution. "The hardest swearers are for fifty-four forty," Crittenden wrote, "and he thinks, perhaps, by taking the same position he may escape more curses than in any other way." '

Aberdeen in the crisis assumed the leadership that politics had denied to Polk. The British foreign minister had acknowledged his retreat to 49 in September 1844. When in 1845 the Hudson's Bay Company moved its main depot from the Columbia to Vancouver Island because of the decline of the fur traffic and the growing pressure of American immigrants, it admitted that the Columbia boundary was no longer essential to its interests. The British surrender of the Columbia was the key to the Oregon settlement." In April 1846 Congress passed the resolution for notice. As the administration anticipated, Britain responded with an acceptable proposal. This the president, without hesitation, forwarded to the Senate, explaining to expansionist Democrats that his own responsibilities and the state of public opinion gave him no choice.72 When the Senate approved the British offer, Polk prepared a definitive treaty. This the Senate ratified in June.

By requesting the notice Polk undoubtedly created the occasion for the Oregon settlement. Beyond that the president assumed little responsibility for what occurred. Clinging as he did to the party platform, he denied himself the freedom to negotiate directly with the British. Webster placed credit for the treaty elsewhere: "The discussions in Congress, the discussions on the other side of the water, the general sense of the community, all protested against the iniquity of two of the greatest nations of modern times rushing into war.... All enforced the conviction, that it was a question to be settled by an equitable and fair consideration, and it was thus settled." Pakenham agreed. To him, Polk had remained attuned to the theme of 54-40 too long to exert any influence in bringing a final settlement. He attributed the treaty to either the "wisdom and integrity of the Senate, or the intelligence and good sense of the American people." 73 Even such Democratic leaders as Calhoun believed to the end that they had achieved the final agreement against the influence of the president.

The Oregon Treaty differed in only two respects from Polk's proposal of July 1845. The president had demanded the extension of the 49th parallel to the Pacific, with Britain ceding the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He omitted all reference to British navigation on the Columbia. Aberdeen countered with the British position: the 49th parallel to the middle of the channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island, and then a line southward through King George's Sound and westward through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific. This boundary would convey all of Vancouver Island to Great Britain. In addition, Aberdeen demanded common use of the Columbia. McLane in London urged the acceptance of the British position, convinced that Britain would not retreat further. Polk readily conceded the loss of Vancouver Island, but he believed that concession sufficient to terminate all further negotiation over free ports to the south of Fuca Strait. He feared some future conflict along the Columbia if Britain retained navigation rights. McLane recommended that use of the Columbia be limited to the Hudson's Bay Company.74 These modifications, agreed to in advance by both countries, comprised the only diplomatic achievement in the negotiations of 1846.

For Polk and Aberdeen, long in essential agreement over the equitable distribution of the Northwest's waterways, the Oregon Treaty was hardly a major compromise. Large portions of the British and American publics, however, viewed the final settlement as a sacrifice. The task of leadership in the crisis consisted of bringing opinion in both countries to an acceptance of the 49th parallel. Since domestic partisanship tied the president's hands, Congress and the metropolitan press led the movement for compromise in the United States. What brought easy success was the total irrelevance of the 54-40 issue to the well-defined and achievable interests of the United States. For Aberdeen the task of securing support was more difficult, because Britain, unlike the United States, retreated from a traditional offer.75 Both nations were generally content with the distribution of land and ports. During the closing argument on the Oregon Treaty, Benton passed final judgment on the 49th parallel stating that, "With this boundary comes all that we want in that quarter, namely, all the waters of Puget's Sound, and the fertile Olympian district which borders upon them." The Oregon settlement brought to the business communities on both sides of the Atlantic relief from the evils of suspense and uncertainty. A brief poem in the New York Herald summed up well the attitude of the English-speaking world:

Old Buck and Pack
Are coming back
And will soon together dine.
And drink a toast
Upon their roast
To number forty-nine.76

From The Changing Pacific Northwest: INTERPRETING its PAST
edited by DAVID H. STRATTON and GEORGE A. FRYKMAN WSU PRESS, Washington State University Press Pullman, Washington 1988.